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The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol…

The Gravedigger's Daughter (2007)

by Joyce Carol Oates

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This novel is about irreparable Jewish psychological trauma caused by Holocaust and about anti-semitism, which has no borders.
Most of reviews of this great work fail to notice that ...
I immensely thankful to Joyce Carol Oates for the courage of raising such "uncomfortable" issues. ( )
  PrinceAlexander | Sep 13, 2015 |
Agony to read: descriptions of the hovel that is the Schwarts’ home, the tainted water they are forced to drink, the hard labor of digging and maintaining graves, the parents’ terror of what they left behind mixed with fear of American anti-Semitism, and the humiliation of their unfulfilled lives of deprivation and separateness in Milburn (upstate New York) is disturbing and visceral. Oates’ story of this disintegrating Jewish family compelled me to read on though I wanted to drop this horror and flee. I knew that Jacob’s possessive anger and manic cruelty, and Anna’s emotional collapse and dysfunction and the effects on Rebecca and her two brothers could only lead to a terrifying climax. I had to read on to learn exactly what happens and quickly pass it by without totally absorbing it all… until later.

How Rebecca lives on and the choices she makes, and her extraordinary and often irrational behavior is understandable only in context of her tormented early life. There is no doubt that her strength saved her many times.

By now everyone knows Oates is a master of manipulating words but I wasn’t prepared for my thoughts to be so deeply moved. ( )
1 vote Bookish59 | Nov 27, 2014 |
I am an ardent fan of Joyce Carol Oates, her novel Blonde is among my favorites, so I have to warn that my opinion of this book must be considered with that fandom in mind.

The first thing in this book that really engaged me was a kind of character that I had never encountered in fiction before. I have read a great many novels set during the Holocaust but I have never, until now, met characters who are Jewish, and must live with the burden that brings, but who at the same time derive no comfort from their faith. The parents of Rebecca, the main character of this novel, are ethnically Jewish Germans who flee the country to emigrate to America during Hitler's rise to power. However, prior to the stigma that was forced on them by the Nazis, Rebecca's parents had identified primarily as Germans and had taken their values and worldview from German philosophers. Once in America, the family is marginalized as the other and her parents turn inward to such a dramatic extent that there occurs an explosive event which destroys the family completely. After leaving her family, Rebecca lives for a bit in a kind but suffocating foster home and then lives on her own, working as a chamber maid. She quickly falls into marriage with a man she doesn't really know and has a son. Soon she must leave this husband, and her identity, and strikes out on her own with her son, becoming a gypsy around New York State, until she determines what the proper new identity is and finds a new husband who is kinder, but too happy to live with the artifice Rebecca has made of her life.

I found it quite interesting that in the first section of the book, when Rebecca is a girl and then through the trauma of her first marriage, the story is told from her point of view and the reader is always aware of her thoughts. However, once Rebecca sheds her birth identity and Americanizes even further, to become Hazel Jones, the reader no longer knows what is going on in her head so often and there are multiple points of view brought into the narrative. This technique is an interesting way to highlight the manner in which Rebecca/Hazel has so completely changed herself.

Anyone who is familiar with Oates' work knows that the brief plot outline I have offered doesn't even begin to include all of the threads of this story. There is a brief encounter with a serial killer, examinations of what happens to men who define themselves through a certain kinds of brute manhood when they lose power, the too cozy closeness of living in a small town where everyone knows everyone, and a million other bits an pieces.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys thinking about the idea of identity in the United States and to anyone who just wants a really good old fashioned novel that is filled with interesting characters and realistic details. ( )
1 vote elmoelle | Aug 9, 2013 |
Dark & disturbing...but couldn't put it down! ( )
  Babalulu | Mar 29, 2013 |
This was a very hard book to read. It’s not that it is poorly written; it’s that the protagonist’s situation struck a raw note and was so painful for me to read about.

Rebecca Schwart’s life is all about fear. From the time she is a small child, fear rules her life. Daughter of immigrants who fled the Nazis, she lives in horrible poverty, her father being reduced from a high school math teacher in Germany to a cemetery caretaker in America. Understandably bitter by their reduced circumstances and the way they are treated by Americans, her father is authoritarian and abusive, taking his anger and defeat out on his family. Rebecca learns to be what her father wants her to be to keep things running smoothly. After tragedy turns her out on her own, she uses this talent of being what others want her to be to her advantage. It keeps her alive through brutal marriage; it enables her to run and start a new life.

Sadly, although Rebecca (now living under the name of Hazel Jones- even that name is a case of her becoming what someone else wants her to be) manages to make her way to a good life, she loses herself. She’s incredibly perceptive as to what people want, and very adept at giving them that. While she certainly has standards- she is firm as to what lines she will not cross- she does not present her real self to a single person. She is more mirror than human.

It’s what most every person in an abusive relationship learns to do; Rebecca just takes it much further than most do. After getting involved with her first husband, she has not pursued a single thing she really wanted to do other than raise her beloved and musically gifted son. In this novel of 580 pages, we never do find out what Rebecca wanted out of life other than to raise her son safely.

It’s a powerful book. I found it painfully long and slow, but could not stop reading, wondering if Rebecca could keep up the act and not make a misstep that would cause her house of cards to tumble down. If you want to see some of the psychological effects of being in an abusive, manipulative, relationship are, read this book. If you have been in that kind of relationship, you might find this book to be very triggering. ( )
2 vote dark_phoenix54 | Mar 24, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)

At the beginning of Oates's 36th novel, Rebecca Schwart is mistaken by a seemingly harmless man for another woman, Hazel Jones, on a footpath in 1959 Chatauqua Falls, N.Y. Five hundred pages later, Rebecca will find out that the man who accosted her is a serial killer, and Oates will have exercised, in a manner very difficult to forget, two of her recurring themes: the provisionality of identity and the awful suddenness of male violence. There's plenty of backstory, told in retrospect. Rebecca's parents escape from the Nazis with their two sons in 1936; Rebecca is born in the boat crossing over. When Rebecca is 13, her father, Jacob, a sexton in Milburn, N.Y., kills her mother, Anna, and nearly kills Rebecca, before blowing his own head off. At the time of the footpath crossing, Rebecca is just weeks away from being beaten, almost to death, by her husband, Niles Tignor (a shady traveling beer salesman). She and son Niley flee; she takes the name of the woman for whom she has been recently mistaken and becomes Hazel Jones. Niley, with a musical gift, becomes Zacharias, "a name from the bible," Rebecca tells people. Rebecca's Hazel navigates American norms as a waitress, salesperson and finally common-law wife of the heir of the Gallagher media fortune, a man in whom she never confides her past. Oates is a novelistic tracker, following the traces of some character's flight from or toward some ultimate violence with forensic precision. Many of the passages are a lot like a blown-up photo of a bruise—ugly without seeming to have a point. Yet the traumatic pattern of the hunter and the hunted, unfolded in Rebecca/Hazel's lifelong escape, never cripples Hazel: she is liberated, made crafty, deepened by her ultimately successful flight. Like Theodore Dreiser, Oates wears out objections with her characters, drawn in an explosive vernacular. Everything in this book depends on Oates' ability to bring a woman before the reader who is deeply veiled—whose real name is unknown even to herself—and she does it with epic panache.
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for my grandmother Blanche Morgenstern,
the "gravedigger's daughter,"


and for David Ebershoff,
by a circuitous route
First words
"In animal life the weak are quickly disposed of."
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Disambiguation notice
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Book description
Beautiful Hazel Jones and her young son Zach are liked and admired by all they meet — but they inspire curiosity too. Why is Zach forbidden to mention his father, and how did Hazel get the scars on her forehead which she takes such pains to hide? Why do they roam from place to place, settling nowhere and confiding in no one?

Because Hazel Jones wasn't always Hazel Jones. Once she was Rebecca Schwart, the dark-eyed daughter of German asylum seekers who fled to the US to escape the Nazis. Her father, hampered by language and chained by poverty, could only find work as a gravedigger, and Rebecca and her family lived in a hovel on the edge of the cemetery.

Driven mad by subjection to daily humiliation and destitution, Rebecca's father committed a horrific crime which changed the course of her life forever. But can you ever re-invent yourself in the aftermath of murder — or is history destined to repeat itself?
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0061236837, Paperback)

Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1936, the Schwarts immigrate to a small town in upstate New York. Here the father—a former high school teacher—is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. When local prejudice and the family's own emotional frailty give rise to an unthinkable tragedy, the gravedigger's daughter, Rebecca heads out into America. Embarking upon an extraordinary odyssey of erotic risk and ingenious self-invention, she seeks renewal, redemption, and peace—on the road to a bittersweet and distinctly “American” triumph.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:33 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Rebecca, the daughter of a German high school teacher who was forced to work as a gravedigger after immigrating to upstate New York, begins a life-changing pilgrimage throughout America in the wake of a prejudice-motivated tragedy.

» see all 6 descriptions

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